Russian Navy's Way Around Turkey Closing The Bosporus To Its Warships, Literally

Buyan-M Class missile corvette Uglich
The Buyan-M Class missile corvette Uglich (653), which is expected to travel through the internal waterways.

Russian Navy's Way Around Turkey Closing The Bosporus To Its Warships, Literally

Flag Russia When Turkey closed the Bosporus to Russian warships it made headlines. The narrow strait which connects the Black Sea and the Mediterrean and is the only direct waterway between them. The move seriously restricts Russia's ability to move its warships around, limiting which warships can directly participate in its invasion of Ukraine. But there is a trick up Russia's sleeve.

It is expected that the Russian Navy will use the country's network of internal waterways to move two warships between fleets. This avoids going anywhere near the Bosporus at all.

I had been intending to write about these internal waterways for some time, in the context of the Montreux Convention. More on that below.

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Prove that the waterways are still relevant

The Buyan-M Class missile corvette Uglich (653) and Grachonok-class anti-saboteur ship Yunarmeets Tatarstana will travel to the Baltic. There they are expected to take part in the Navy Day parade.

Russia has a network of canals joining its ports in the Baltic, Arctic, Caspian and Black Seas. It is possible to move ships and submarines, up to a certain size, between these seas without going around.

Map of Russia inland waterways
1985 map of then-USSR inland waterways. From CIA report 'Submarine launch Procedures at Leningrad Shipyards Sudomekh 196 and Admiralty 194 (S). Declassified.

During the Cold War, some Russian submarines built in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on the Baltic were loaded onto a YRD (U.S. Navy terms for an auxiliary repair dock) and moved to the Black Sea. For example, the Project 1840 LIMA Class special mission submarine.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and years of decay, there was an open question with some analysts as to whether the waterways were still in working order. This latest move suggests that they are.

Buyan-M Class missile corvette VLS
The Buyan-M class has a VLS (vertical Launch system) which can carry Kalibr cruise missiles. The weapons have been used in the Ukraine War.

It seems odd that Russia is moving two ships, which might be useful in the Ukraine Invasion, to the Baltic. Especially given that Uglich can launch Kalibr cruise missiles, one of the main roles of the navy in the war. However, they are from the Caspian Flotilla, not Black sea Fleet, so there may be an organizational angle.

However it shows that the internal waterways do offer Russia a way to send more warships and submarines to the war. There is a physical limit on the size of vessels which can navigate the waterways. But it seems likely that non-nuclear submarines could be transported this way.

Improved KILO Class submarine
Black Sea Fleet Improved KILO Class submarine Veliky Novgorod transiting the Bosporus in 2019. Could it have used the internal waterways instead? Photo from Yörük Işık (Twitter)

Submarine games and the Montreux Convention

The 1936 Montreux Convention greatly restricts non-Turkish warships transiting between the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Although, as a Black Sea state, Russia has fewer restrictions than many countries, there is a specific block on submarines.

However, Russia has used a loophole to move submarines based in the Black Sea through the Bosporus. These movements are described as part of a voyage to or from a shipyard in the Baltic for maintenance, which is covered by a clause. However the submarines spend months in the Mediterranean where they conduct operational deployments. Naturally this is controversial, and the justification of a maintenance voyage is open to challenge.

The internal waterways should make it possible to move the submarines from the Black Sea to the Baltic without going through the Straits at all. The inland way is more direct. So the practice of sending the submarines through the Bosporus appears even less justified.

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